There’s more than meets the ire to new Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield

Tribune Content Agency

TAMPA, Fla. — Baker Mayfield arrived in Los Angeles on a Tuesday night in early December after being claimed off waivers by the Rams. He was taken by car from Los Angeles International Airport to the team’s training facility in Thousand Oaks, where he met with offensive coordinator Liam Coen and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson for about 90 minutes.

With less than 48 hours to go before a Thursday night game against the Raiders at SoFi Stadium, the former No. 1 overall pick was given a portion of the 80-play game plan before checking into his hotel, the same one he and his wife, Emily, had stayed at for their wedding.

Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said Mayfield got only about a dozen live reps on Wednesday and maybe twice that many during a walk-through Thursday morning.

Morris couldn’t believe what happened next.

Despite calling only one play off his wristband that night, Mayfield drove his new team 98 yards in eight plays in the final minute and a half to lead the Rams to a 17-16 comeback win.

“I watched him prepare all week and roll in with a limited information,” Morris said. “I know for a fact he never did a full-speed, two-minute drive, and then (he) went out and won the game with one.

“The Raiders (game), his resilience and just his will to win was sick.”

The game exemplified what some people may miss about the new Bucs quarterback: He loves football, he’s an incredibly smart player, and he has his teammates’ backs.

More to Mayfield

A few images are frozen on Mayfield’s timeline.

The crotch-grabbing in the direction of the Kansas sideline in 2017, the result of animosity between Mayfield and the Jayhawks stemming from his opponents’ refusal to shake his hand at the pregame coin toss. Planting the Oklahoma flag in the center of Ohio State’s field after an upset victory earlier in the season.

He apologized for both.

There’s also his comedic deadpan brilliance in commercials for Progressive, be it meeting with a book club or delivering boots to Alice Cooper at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But Mayfield is so much more than the undersized former walk-on at Texas Teach and Oklahoma who had only four Division I-A scholarship offers coming out of high school before becoming a Heisman House occupant.

“Baker loves football,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken, his coordinator with the Browns in 2019. “I mean, he loves football. He’s as tough a guy as I’ve ever been around. He loves to compete. He’s smart. He’s tough. All those things you want in a quarterback. He is that. That’s what he is. That’s why his teammates like him. It’s important to him.

“He’s got an edge to him. That’s what made him who he is. I think he’s got natural leadership qualities. Again, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. Sometimes, that gets the best of him, as it has me. He isn’t afraid to put himself out there. He works hard at it. He loves playing the game. He’s appreciative of other guys’ success.”

‘I am who I am’

Mayfield, 27, signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Bucs that could be worth as much as $8.5 million. It’s his fourth team since last July.

He’s keenly aware of how some incidents may have formed opinions of him around the league, but he’s not apologizing for his personality.

“I enjoy playing this game and, you know, my personality might rub people the wrong way, but I am who I am,” Mayfield said. “And that’s how I was raised. I’m not trying to play to be your friend or to impress you. I’m doing it because I love it, and I’m doing it because I love my teammates, and I think all my teammates would say the same. Behind closed doors, they know who I really am. And that’s what really matters.”

Mayfield’s agent, Tom Mills, says Mayfield “keeps his circle pretty tight” but is about “as loyal as it gets.”

To understand Mayfield, you have to go back to the beginning, like when he was 3 years old and announced on Saturday morning he wanted to turn off the cartoons and turn on “SportsCenter.”

He grew up playing baseball and football, eventually becoming the starting quarterback for Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas. He led the Cavaliers to a 25-2 record in two seasons, winning the 2011 4A state championship.

Mayfield planned to accept a football scholarship to Florida Atlantic or Washington State until his father, James, convinced him to walk on at Texas Tech, where he became the pilot of the Air Raid offense. He was hampered by a knee injury and eventually replaced by freshman Davis Webb but finished the season with 2,315 yards passing and12 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.

Mayfield had a falling-out with Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury and decided to walk on at Oklahoma. After losing a year of eligibility due to the Big 12 transfer rules, Mayfield finished his first season with 3,700 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions. By the time he left Oklahoma, he had amassed 12,292 passing yards and 119 touchdowns, with 21 interceptions.

The power of belief

When Mayfield arrived at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in the spring of 2018, knowing the Browns held the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, he said brazenly, “If anybody’s going to turn that franchise around, it’d be me.”

But Mayfield got plenty of pushback. ESPN Cleveland radio personality Tony Grossi tweeted in November 2017 that Mayfield was “put on this planet to sucker the Browns.”

The following January, Grossi compared Mayfield to former Texas A&M and Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, saying, “To me, Mayfield looks, sounds, acts and plays like the reincarnation of Manziel — not withstanding Manziel’s substance abuse.” (Grossi was suspended by the network in February 2020 for using a pejorative term to describe Mayfield.)

The situation with the Browns was not a good one for Mayfield. Cleveland had gone 3-13, 1-15 and 0-16 in the three seasons prior to his arrival. He had four head coaches in as many seasons with the team.

Monken was there for one season under Freddie Kitchens but didn’t call plays.

“I didn’t do as good enough of a job there,” Monken said. “I think it’s a tough situation he got put into. Different coordinators, different systems. Expectations. They come with being the top pick in the draft. A lot of things that were difficult in a lot of ways.”

Still, Mayfield went 11-5 and won a playoff game over the Steelers in his third season with the Browns. A severe left shoulder injury helped sink him and the team the next year. An ankle injury later cost Mayfield his job in Carolina, and the Panthers did him a favor by putting him on waivers.

Now, his belief in himself has never been higher.

“To me, to be at the top of your game, whatever industry you’re in, you have to be wired internally to believe in yourself and sometimes trick yourself that nobody else believes in you,” he said. “I enjoy looking at some of the greats in all sports and how they’ve prepared, and that’s how you do it. You’ve got to believe in yourself.

“Unfortunately, I was a late bloomer growing up, so I didn’t have a lot of recruiting coming out of high school, so that helped wire me a certain way to only have that self-confidence. I’ve carried that on since, and that’s the infectious part about me that I try to have my other teammates feel as well.”